Literature of the NonWestern World
Reading: The Epic of Son-Jara, 1431-72
|Nadine Gordimer,||"Oral History,"||2919-31|
1431 The founding of the Mali empire in the mid-13th c. is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose
life & exploits are celebrated in the epic
we will read. Like the Ramayana in India, the Epic of Son-Jara
is still performed all over the Manding area [of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, & Guinea].
I suspect that many of you found Kalidasa's play Sakuntala less than captivating, because so much of its appeal relies on performance: dance, rhymed speech, singing, music, sumptuous costumes & sets. The Epic of Son-Jara does not have these elements, but it is an oral work. Much of its appeal lies in the social experience of responding to the storyteller. We can't do this in cyberspace. So I hope you can substitute a bit by playing music of Ali Farka Toure or Salif Keita. These are contemporary musicians from the same part of Africa depicted in The Epic of Son-Jara.
Because it is an oral work, meant to be performed, The Epic of Son-Jara features many formal names & titles. Click here to find a list of the characters:
|Characters in Son-Jara|
The theme of
The Epic of Son-Jara is stated at the beginning:
line 3 A man of power is hard to find.
Like The 1,001 Nights, the theme of Son-Jara is growing up, gaining the power to control one's emotions & the power not to be dominated by other people (as children are dominated by their parents).
We pick up
the epic with Episode 4 & a prophecy from a jinn. What are jinn?
Hopefully you recall them from our lesson on The Koran. We
learned that angels were created from light, jinn from fire, & humans
from mud. You should notice that the world of Son-Jara is influenced by
1000 A jinn came & laid a hand on him [getting his attention]
"Should you come by that ugly maid,
She will bear you a son
The Manden will belong to him."
is comparable to that given to Abraham. Remember that we are in the
Muslim world. Abraham's first son was Is'mail (Ishmael), the founder
of Mecca & patriarch of the Arab people. You see the parallelism?
Like Is'mail, Son-Jara will be a great leader & patriarch:
1008 I sing of the Sorcerer's future;
Of the life ahead of Son-Jara!
be a descendent of Bilal:
1031 My forefather Bilal,
When he departed from the Messenger of God
Who is Bilal? He was an Ethiopian slave who lived in Mecca in the time of the Prophet. Bilal was the first African to convert to Islam. He became a Companion of the Prophet. We know that African music is some of the greatest in the world & that music is a central element of all African cultures. Thus it is interesting to discover that because of his fine voice, Bilal was appointed by Mohammed to be the first muezzin, the one who calls the faithful to prayer. Here is a short piece on Bilal from a website that offers authoritative information on Islam:
his father's 2nd son, but somehow he is announced as the first son &
is so designated as heir:
1109 "Your husband said the first name heard,
Said, he would be the elder
1114 "I was the first to marry my husband,
& the first to bear him a son.
Now you have made him the younger
You have really reached your limit!"
She spoke then to her younger co-wife,
"For you marriage has turned sweet.
A first son birth is the work of old,
& yours has become the elder."
is always allusive. There are always earlier texts or stories that
influence every text. What are the influences here? We are
likely to think of how Jacob stole his elder brother Esau's birthright
(Genesis 27), especially when he find that Son-Jara is as hairy
1138 From the very top of Son-Jara's head,
To the very tip of his toes, all hair!
name mean "hairy," was the first born of Isaac's twin sons, Esau &
Jacob. There is also the implicit rivalry between Abraham's 2 sons:
Is'mail & Isaac. Regardless of the allusion or influence, the
point is fairly obvious: that you can rise to the top or overcome limiting
circumstances. Son-Jara has not yet done anything to illustrate this.
Like the earlier prophecy about his birth, this is a prophetic suggestion
of what will happen. What obstacles does Son-Jara have to overcome?
Perhaps causing us to think of Sarah & her command to banish Is'mail,
the mother of Son-Jara's slightly elder brother (she is called the Berete
woman) curses Son-Jara. In fact she gets a "witch-doctor" or ju-ju
(magic) shaman to curse the infant:
1151 The Beret woman,
She summoned to her a holy-man,
Charging him to pray to God
So Son-Jara would not walk
1158 For 9 years, Son-Jara crawled upon the ground.
(By the way,
one of King Sunny Ade's albums is called Ju-Ju Music. It is
magic, for Sunny Ade is a great Nigerian musician who has made appearances
as close-by [not in cyberspace] as Santa Fe.)
After this long gestation in or on mother earth (9 years instead of 9 months), Son-Jara begins to walk in our world. The boy finds a kind of father or a benefactor in the person of another jinn:
1160 It was a jinn Magan Son-Jara had.
His name was Tanimunari.
He took the lame Son-Jara
& made the hajj
To the gates of the Kaabah.
or result from the haj is Son-Jara's claim:
1173 I will rule over all these people.
"The Manden shall be mine!"
between the brothers is not settled. In something like a dream or
ritualized version of the rivalry, 2 rams fight:
1192 Son-Jara's ram had won.
They slaughtered both the rams.
& cast them down a well,
So the deed would not be known.
But known it did become.
Knowing never fails its time,
Except its day not come.
is especially full of the kind of aphorisms that you see in the last two
lines. What does it mean? Something like, the truth will become
evident when the time is right-- if that time comes. & the time
does come with the clear succession of authority:
1266 The Messenger of God [Mohammad] was born
Jon Bilal was born.
On its tenth day,
Was the day for Son-Jara to walk.
of crawling before he can stand illustrates this point:
1277 All people with their empty words,
They all seek to be men of power.
All of them seek after power,
But there is no easy way to power.
fashions an iron staff by which Son-Jara pulls himself up to stand:
1358 & upwards Son-Jara drew himself.
But the iron staff does not work. Perhaps it is too male, too inflexible & cold. Another staff, cut from a custard apple or quince tree does work. Quince or custard apples are the cheapest fruit in the tropics. Leaning on a quince tree staff, Son-Jara is a man of the people who will provide for them as prolifically as the quince tree.
Now that he
can walk, we expect Son-Jara to run away from mom to play with other children.
Ah, but Son-Jara is a model son:
1518 He planted the baobab behind his mother's house [saying]:
"In & about the Manden,
From my mother they must seek these leaves!"
1525 "Ah, my mother,
All those women who refused you leaves,
They all must seek those leaves from you."
protected by God:
1563 . . . one day,
A jinn came upon him,
& laid his hand on Son-Jara's shoulder [warning him]:
In the Manden, there's a plot against you.
Like the ritual
of the 2 rams fighting, there is now a dog fight that illustrates:
n1 p. 1450 Son-Jara must have superior magical power.
For Son-Jara's toothless dog:
1607 charged the dog of Dankaran Tuman
& ripped him into shreds, fèsè fèsè fèsè!
We can imagine the kids listening to this story would be amused at the sounds of the dog fight: "fèsè fèsè." I am guessing that many of the sound effects performed by the story-teller are aimed at the young people in the audience. The themes of how to grow up, how to respect people (especially one's mother), & the necessity of patience -- all seem especially oriented to young listeners. Then there are the scary monsters, Sumamuru who wears a human skin suit & the 9 Queens of Darkness. There are also magical scenes, such as the 9 piles of meat somehow reassembling into the red bull. All of these would no doubt have been appreciated by young listeners.
rivalry with his brother takes a turn that should remind you of Rama's
muted rivalry with his brother Bharata who ruled the 14 years that Rama
was exiled in the forest.
1648 The mother of King Dankaran Tuman [said],
1655 "Go & seek a place to die,
If not, I will chop through your necks."
1659 Son-Jara bitterly wept, bilika bilika!
& went to tell his mother.
His mother said,
"Ah! My child,
Be calm. Salute [i.e., respect] your brother.
Had he banished you as a cripple,
Where would you have gone?"
As in a dream,
the order is linguistic instead of chronological. So at the mention
of exile, Son-Jara takes her son away from the dangerous rivalry with his
brother & her mother.
Son-Jara is still a child, unlike Ram whose wife Sita is abducted. With Son-Jara in exile, his brother succeeds to the Manden throne but is incapable of dealing with a threat from a neighbor, king Sumamuru. In exile, Son-Jara learns ju-ju (magic):
1174 Ah! Those who are feared by all,
If you join them, you are spared
We learn that:
1796 The village where Sumamuru was,
That village was called Dark Forest.
(#6 on p. 1453) says that:
The name of the village identifies Sumamuru with paganism [or African primal religion], as opposed
to the Muslim affiliations of Son-Jara.
a scary creature dressed:
1830 With pants of human skin,
& coat of human skin
King Dankaran Tuman, Son-Jara's brother:
1888 Breaking the Manden like an old pot
As we might
expect of anyone who wears a suit of human skin, Sumamuru proves to be
a tyrant. Knowing that Son-Jara has a claim to the throne, Sumamuru tries
to have him assassinated:
1913 & one red bull did give to them,
Saying they should offer it
To the 9 Queens-of-Darkness,
Asking them to slay Son-Jara
That he not enter the Manden again.
of Darkness" are the very "women" who taught their magic to Son-Jara.
Nonetheless, they take the bull in payment & threaten our hero -- perhaps
as a spur to wean him & force him to do his own magic:
1943 "O Son-Jara,
A message has come from the Manden,
From Susu Mountain Sumamuru,
Saying we should slay you."
The scene is
all about power. Your mother & the 9 Queens & mother earth
(crawling for 9 years) have done what they could. Now is the time
to become a man -- or rather a lion of a man:
1966 He went to the back of the house.
Into a lion he transformed himself
1970 He went & seized a buffalo,
1976 9 water buffalos, 9 witches!
"Each take your own?"
are convinced that Son-Jara is a man. Notice how operatic the tone
of this scene is:
1985 Son-Jara, you alone, 9 buffalos!
It is to him the Manden must belong!
Let us then release him!
put the slaughtered bull back together again:
2008 The bull rose up & stretched.
It bellowed to Muhammad
In the first
line of his prophecy Son-Jara seems to be addressing his routed brother.
But the second line is clearly intended for Sumamuru:
2025 Say, "A child may be first-born, but that does not
always make him the elder."
Say, "Today may belong to some,
Tomorrow will belong to another."
mother dies because he is no longer a child who need's a mother's protection.
Son-Jara leads an army to take his land, the Manden, in a very deliberate
2606 For 1 entire month,
Son-Jara & his army by the riverbank sat.
On the literal,
plot level, Son-Jara cannot cross the river. Then the hero recalls:
2613 When my mother & I were going to Mema,
She took her silver bracelet off
& gave it to a person here.
She gave it
to the ferry-man, who recognizes Son-Jara & ferries his army across
2630 The Boatman patriarch, Sasaglo the Tall,
He brought Son-Jara across.
The Wizard advanced with his army.
They fell upon Sumamuru at Dark Forest.
But he drove them off.
Susu Mountain Sumamuru drove Son-Jara off.
2 more unsuccessful campaigns against Sumamuru. Son-Jara lives in
Anguish until his sister offers to help him:
2669 Son-Jara's flesh-&-blood-sister, Sugulun Kulunkan,
She said, "O Magan Son-Jara
One person cannot fight this war.
Let me go see Sumamuru.
Were I then to reach him,
To you I will deliver him,
So that the folk of the Manden be yours.
Sumamuru who tells her the secret of his power:
2716 "Only then can I be vanquished,"
His mother sprang forward at that:
"Heh! Susu Mountain Sumamuru!
Never tell all to a woman,
To a one-night woman!
By now you
must have noticed how prominent woman & mothers are in this story.
Son-Jara is held 10 times longer than normal by the mother earth on whom
he crawls. His human mother endures exile for him. It is the
9 mothers or Queens who teach magic to Son-Jara & now it is his sister
who obtains the secret knowledge that will defeat the male monster.
You also remember how reverent Son-Jara was in regard to his mother's funeral.
Compare, then, Son-Jara's feminine power (illustrated, e.g., by waiting
for a month at the river & then crossing only because his mother had
made it possible) to Sumamuru's primitive, male rage:
2722 Sumamuru sprang towards his mother,
& came & seized his mother,
& slashed off her breast with a knife, magasi!
Medea, who killed her brother to save her lover Jason:
2742 Sugulun returned to reveal those secrets
to her flesh-&-blood-brother, Son-Jara.
the intelligence provided by his sister, Son-Jara dispatches Sumamuru:
2880 Son-Jara held him t bladepoint [saying].
"We have taken you, Colossus!
We have taken you!"
Sumamuru dried up on the spot.
At the end
we are told that Son-Jara was as a mother to his people:
2940 The reason for Son-Jara's coming to the Manden [was],
To stabilize the Manden,
To improve the people's lot.
The Epic of
Son-Jara is interestingly parallel to the work of Homer. In the Iliad
Homer illustrates that an unconditional dedication to violence, to getting
power at any cost, is both self-defeating & catastrophic. The
world of the Iliad ends with the city of the world (Troy) reduced to ashes.
The refuges will ultimately found the city of Rome, but the magnificent
heroes -- Achilles, Agamemnon, & even Odysseus -- create nothing.
They destroy everything. In the world of the Odyssey, civilization
is "woven" again because Odysseus learns what Son-Jara learns: to be patient,
respectful, & self-disciplined. Again & again Odysseus is
saved by the counsel of girls (Ino, Nausicca, & "the awesome one in
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* * *
Nadine Gordimer: "Oral History," 2919-31
Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. She is a white South African whose many novels & stories consistently illustrate the evils of the apartheid system of racial segregation; how it corrupted the whites as well as victimized the blacks. This story is almost a preview of the same theme we will study in the next 2 lessons, which will analyze Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart. Our introduction identifies 3 themes in this story:
The house is
both a kind of prize & a prison occupied by the chief who is forced
to try to serve 2 masters: his own people & the Europeans. Some
chiefs have a car, which is purely a totem since there are no roads, no
gasoline & no drivers. Our chief:
had a radio, & he could read. He read to the headmen the letter from the government saying that
anyone hiding or giving food & water to those who were fighting against the government's army
would be put in prison. He read another letter from the government saying that . . . anybody who
walked in the bush after dark would be shot.
When do young
men go to court their sweethearts? Not during the day when they should
We find that the village is already governed by a pastiche of native & European rituals. For example:
The children were baptized with names chosen by portent in consultation between the mother & an
old man who read immutable fate in the fall of small bones cast like dice from a horn cup.
Which of these
is rituals is empty & without power? Christian baptism or the
augury? Obviously baptism is a strange & meaningless ritual conducted
by a stranger. The important ritual is naming & thereby giving
the first form to a new life. There is no similar problem with the ritual
of Saturday night beer drinking:
2925 Everyone is welcome at a beer-drink.
But how to get there? Remember the letter from the government? Anyone walking in the bush after dark is a rifle target.
Before the government started to shoot people at night to stop more young men leaving when no one
was awake to ask, "Where are you going?" people thought nothing of walking 10 miles from one village
to another for a beer-drink.
seems fairly innocuous, because when the Land Rover comes crashing through
the bush to reach the village:
2926 it could be heard minutes away, crashing through the mopane like a frightened animal, & dust
hung marking the direction from which it was coming. The children ran to tell.
nothing of abstract European concerns, all the village people know is that
the white man seems bent on their destruction for no apparent reason:
2927 The chief's latest wife . . . of the age-group of his elder grandchildren [asks], "Why does he want
us to die, that white man!"
The road, 5
kilometers from the village, is mined by rebels & the army is suddenly
not so clumsy & innocuous:
2928 Many [young men] were being captured in the bush & killed by the army -- seek & destroy was
what the white men said now.
The puzzling "seek & you shall find" taught at the mission church, now reveals the true colonial & military intent: "seek & destroy." The pattern is as old as the Spanish conquistadors who began annihilating the people of the so-called New World of Mexico & Peru in the 16th c. In the course of that century they doubled all the gold in Europe. They also entirely destroyed sophisticated civilizations & directly or indirectly (through disease) killed at least ten times more people than the Nazi Holocaust.
he is the chief, our informer:
had to wait, like a beggar rather than a chief, to be allowed to approach [the military compound] & be searched.
he has been taught by the missionaries & the government (who bought
his allegiance with the house), the chief reports that a few unknown young
men are visiting his village. Are they simply young men looking for
girl friends or are they rebels? They are clearly not what the white
2929 They kill people who say no [to their demands for aid], he; cut their ears off, you know that? Tear away
their lips. Don't you see the pictures in the papers?"
"We never saw it. I heard the government say on the radio."
The white soldier
is quick to further the cause of European peace & justice:
2930 The planes only children bothered to look up at any longer had come in the night & dropped
something terrible & alive . . . . The earth under the village seemed to have burst open . . .
[scattering in the broken tree branches] bicycles, radios & shoes brought back from the mines,
the bright cloths young wives wound on their heads, the pretty pictures of white lambs & pink
children at the knees of the golden-haired Christ the Scottish Mission Board first brought long ago.
When the chief
returns to see what has become of his village, because of his ambition
to please Europeans, he hangs himself. We recognize the symbol of
native surrender in the last line of the story as well as the sepulchral
color of white that means death:
2931 A white flag on a mopane pole hangs outside the house whose white walls, built like a white man's
[house] , stand from before this time [of total destruction].
I wonder how well you liked this story? It is certainly powerful. It is also highly didactic. You can image how Gordimer sought to illustrate her moral vision with incidents that all focus on the atrocity of the ending. None of the characters or elements of the plot have any freedom to follow any other direction. Everything is aligned in order to show us the effects of colonialism & apartheid. Perhaps the most glaring didactic element is the somewhat heavy-handed irony that suggests how perverted & deceitful Europeans are: "the pretty pictures of white lambs & pink children at the knees of the golden-haired Christ" are not what the European military forces produce in the village. How can we be shocked at this portrait of Christianity which has help annihilate millions of native people & their cultures over the course of the "progress" of the last 4 centuries? Of course we see what we want to see. We feel good about our benign intent. We see our side of things & deny the validity of Gordimer's version of things or that of her characters, like the young woman who angrily asks, "Why doe he want us to die, that white man!" We smile thinking that she is too young & ignorant to understand that the white missionaries & government officials hope to bring the benefits of civilization to South Africa. Perhaps this is true in some sense. But the way that the young woman sees her life & her village is also undeniably true. This is exactly what Gordimer illustrates at the end. Gordimer's intent is to force us to recognize exactly this ugly paradox -- of the difference between our motives & the effect of our actions as seen by native -- because she believes that we cannot control or stop what we refuse to recognize.
I do not mean
to malign the great artistry of Nadine Gordimer. I have read most
of her work with great enjoyment. But I hope you find Achebe's novel
much richer in detail & in communicating a sense of what it must have
been like to live in such an African village before colonization.
Anyway, that is for next week. Right now you need to finish this
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